Saudi Arabia expels Canadian ambassador over call to free women’s rights activists

Home / Saudi Arabia expels Canadian ambassador over call to free women’s rights activists

Saudi Arabia has expelled Canada’s ambassador and frozen trade with the country after it criticised the recent arrest of women’s rights activists, while warning others not to "interfere in its affairs".

Saudi state airline Saudia is also suspending flights to and from Toronto.

Canadian diplomats on Friday said Ottawa was "gravely concerned" about the arrests and called for the activists’ immediate release.

Saudi Arabia responded on Monday by ordering the Canadian ambassador to leave within 24 hours and recalling its own envoy back to Riyadh.

"Any further step from the Canadian side in that direction will be considered as acknowledgment of our right to interfere in the Canadian domestic affairs," Saudi’s foreign ministry said in the unusually aggressive statement to its ally.

"Canada and all other nations need to know that they can’t claim to be more concerned than the kingdom over its own citizens."

Saudi Arabia's crown prince Prince Mohammed bin Salman is leading an aggressive Saudi foreign policyCredit:

The foreign ministry also said it would suspend education exchange programmes in Canada, which some 15,000 Saudi students are enrolled on, and freeze "all new business".

The ultra-conservative Gulf kingdom arrested two women’s rights activists last week, including Samar Badawi, whose brother Raif Badawi was arrested in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and later sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in jail for criticising clerics. His wife, Ensaf Haidar, is now living in Canada.

Marie-Pier Baril, a spokeswoman for Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign minister, said they were "seriously concerned" by Saudi Arabia’s actions.

"Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, very much including women’s rights, and freedom of expression around the world," she said in a statement. "Our government will never hesitate to promote these values and believes that this dialogue is critical to international diplomacy."

Almost immediately after the news broke, Saudi Twitter accounts began tweeting similarly phrased messages of their “concern” for Canada’s own treatment of First Nation members and the need for Quebec to gain independence.

Saudi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been praised for pushing through reforms in recent months, which included lifting the ban on women driving in the kingdom.

However, more than a dozen prominent rights activists were arrested before the day came in June and accused of illegal contact with "foreign entities".

Analysts said the decision to expel Canada’s ambassador was likely to have been taken by the Saudi government to send the message that while the once-closed kingdom is beginning to open up to the world it will not tolerate criticism on its human rights.

“No one should interpret this as a tantrum from Riyadh,” tweeted H A Hellyer, senior research fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute in London.

“It is far more likely to be a calculated move, designed to establish a new litmus test internationally for continued relations with Saudi Arabia. The question is whether or not everyone will buckle – or refuse.”

The diplomatic move may be part of the crown prince’s  more aggressive foreign policy, which since his father took the throne in 2015 has seen Saudi intervene in the conflict in neighbouring Yemen and pressure Lebanon’s prime minister into resigning.

The Saudi government appears particularly sensitive to the case of Raif Badawi, recalling the ambassador to Sweden in 2015 over criticism of the activist’s flogging. The spat ended after Sweden’s king apologised. 

It is not immediately clear what new business could be affected between Canada and Saudi Arabia.

Some 10 per cent of Canadian crude oil imports come from Saudi Arabia.

Bilateral trade between the two nations reached $3 billion in 2016, with tanks and fighting vehicles among the top Canadian exports to the kingdom, according to government statistics.

Saudi is the Canadian defence industry’s biggest client outside of the United States.

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